The Uber files is a global investigation into a trove of 124,000 confidential documents from the tech company that were leaked to the Guardian. The data reveals how Uber flouted the law, duped police, exploited violence against drivers and secretly lobbied governments across the world.
The leak consists of emails, iMessages and WhatsApp exchanges between the Silicon Valley giant’s most senior executives, as well as memos, presentations, notebooks, briefing papers and invoices.
The files cover 40 countries and span from 2013 to 2017, the period in which Uber went from a plucky startup to a global behemoth, brute-forcing its way into cities around the world with little regard for taxi regulations.
To facilitate a global investigation, the Guardian shared the data with 180 journalists at more than 40 media organisations via the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).
What do they reveal?
The cache of more than 124,000 internal Uber files lays bare the ethically questionable practices through which the company barged its way into new markets, often where existing laws or regulations made its operations illegal, before lobbying aggressively for those same laws or regulations to be altered to accommodate it.
As economy minister, Emmanuel Macron went to extraordinary lengths to support Uber and its campaign to disrupt France’s closed-shop taxi industry, even telling the company he had brokered a “deal” with its opponents in the French cabinet.
Senior executives at Uber ordered the use of a “kill switch” to prevent police and regulators from accessing sensitive data during raids on its offices in at least six countries.
Two of Barack Obama’s most senior presidential campaign advisers, David Plouffe and Jim Messina, discussed helping Uber get to access leaders, officials and diplomats.
The former vice-president of the European Commission Neelie Kroes secretly helped Uber to lobby a string of top Dutch politicians, including the country’s prime minister. Her relationship with the company was so sensitive that its top European lobbyist warned it was “highly confidential and should not be discussed outside this group”.
At least six UK government ministers, including the then chancellor, George Osborne, and the future health secretary Matt Hancock, did not declare secret meetings at which they were lobbied by Uber.
The inside story of how Uber used its connections to the Conservative party to lobby Boris Johnson in a rearguard effort to stop Transport for London introducing new regulations.
One of Uber’s top executives quit amid questions for the company about whether its European operations were structured in a way that avoided tax.
Uber secretly hired a political operative linked to Russian oligarchs allegedly aligned with Vladimir Putin in an attempt to secure its place in the Russian market, despite internal bribery concerns.
The leak reveals how former Labour minister Peter Mandelson used his access to pro-Kremlin oligarchs, including some now under sanctions, to assist the company.
Who leaked the data?
Mark MacGann, Uber’s former chief lobbyist in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said he decided to speak out because he believed Uber’s senior executives knowingly flouted laws in dozens of countries and “sold people a lie” about the economic benefits to drivers of the company’s gig economy model.
The 52-year-old acknowledged he was part of Uber’s top team at the time – and is not without blame for the conduct he describes. He said he was partly motivated by remorse.
“I regret being part of a group of people which massaged the facts to earn the trust of drivers, of consumers and of political elites,” he said. “I should have shown more common sense and pushed harder to stop the craziness. It is my duty to speak up and help governments and parliamentarians right some fundamental wrongs. Morally, I had no choice in the matter.”
Why does the period covered by the leak matter?
The five-year span covered by the data covered a crucial period of Uber’s expansion.
When the app first launched publicly in San Francisco in 2010, Uber customers could only hire luxury black vehicles. The introduction the following year of UberX, which enabled drivers to pick up passengers in their own cars, quickly gained traction and by early 2013 the service was operating in more than 30 locations – mostly in the US.
It was around this point that Uber sought to rapidly expand overseas. The period covered by the leaked data was marked by frenzied growth, as Uber used its record venture capital investments to subsidise journeys in cities across the world. By June 2017, when its controversial co-founder Travis Kalanick resigned as chief executive, Uber was operating in more than 600 locations.
Kalanick’s replacement, Dara Khosrowshahi, set out to prove to shareholders that the company could deliver profitable growth. Five years later, Uber – now valued at $45bn – provides on-demand transport in more than 10,000 cities.
How have Uber and Travis Kalanick responded to the investigation?
In a statement, Uber’s senior vice-president of public affairs, Jill Hazelbaker, said: “We have not and will not make excuses for past behaviour that is clearly not in line with our present values. Instead, we ask the public to judge us by what we’ve done over the last five years and what we will do in the years to come.”
She continued: “Uber is now one of the largest platforms for work in the world and an integral part of everyday life for over 100 million people. We’ve moved from an era of confrontation to one of collaboration, demonstrating a willingness to come to the table and find common ground with former opponents, including labour unions and taxi companies.
“We are now regulated in more than 10,000 cities around the world, working at all levels of government to improve the lives of those using our platform and the cities we serve.”
In a separate statement, Travis Kalanick’s spokesperson said he “never authorised any actions or programs that would obstruct justice in any country”, and he “never suggested that Uber should take advantage of violence at the expense of driver safety. Any accusation that Mr Kalanick directed, engaged in, or was involved in any of these activities is completely false.”
“The reality was that Uber’s expansion initiatives were led by over a hundred leaders in dozens of countries around the world and at all times under the direct oversight and with the full approval of Uber’s robust legal, policy, and compliance groups.”
The spokesperson added: “When Mr Kalanick co-founded Uber in 2009, he and the rest of the Uber team pioneered an industry that has now become a verb. To do this required a change of the status quo, as Uber became a serious competitor in an industry where competition had been historically outlawed.
“As a natural and foreseeable result, entrenched industry interests all over the world fought to prevent the much-needed development of the transportation industry.”